When Does a Consciousness Test Not Test for Consciousness? – Facts So Romantic

A pigeon looks at its reflection in the mirror. It sees a blue dot on the reflection’s breast. It reaches down and pecks at the dot on its own breast.

This is the classic behavior required for passing the “mirror test,” an influential experiment used to test for self-awareness in animals. Chimpanzees became the first animal to pass the test, in 1969; 12 years later, a report in Science claimed that pigeons cleared the bar. Last month researchers reported in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior that they had replicated that experiment. But most scientists, including the authors of the recent paper, downplay the importance of the result, insisting that pigeons have not demonstrated the self-awareness that the mirror test is assumed to test for. This apparent contradiction highlights how hard it is to understand the minds of creatures who have yet to tell us just what they’re thinking.

The debate over interpreting the mirror test goes back more than 40 years. I first wrote about the test in the Nautilus feature “What Do Animals See in a Mirror?” I explained how Gordon G. Gallup, Jr., published a…
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